UN has proof of Iraqi nerve gas

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The Independent Online
IRAQ WAS last night once more on a collision course with the United Nations over claims that it loaded deadly VX nerve gas into missile warheads during the 1990-91 Gulf War.

Richard Butler, chief of Unscom, the special UN commission in charge of eliminating all of Iraq's weapons programmes, is expected to confirm to the Security Council in New York this morning that new evidence has been found suggesting that some Iraqi missiles were indeed filled with the gas.

United States government sources yesterday confirmed a Washington Post report detailing the results of swabs taken from the remnants of Iraqi warheads at a US Army laboratory in Maryland. The newspaper said that a preliminary analysis of the swabs indicated the presence of a "significant amount" of VX disulphide and stabiliser.

The finding, if confirmed, will strengthen the hand of the US and Britain, which together have been robust in maintaining crippling economic sanctions against Iraq since the end of the Gulf War. By contrast, countries more sympathetic to Baghdad - notably Russia and France - may use the latest twist to accuse Unscom of deliberately leaking information harmful to Iraq.

Under UN resolutions, the sanctions on Iraq can only be lifted once Unscom has assured the Security Council that all of Iraq's programmes to manufacture and deploy weapons of mass destruction - including long-range missiles, nuclear warheads as well as chemical and biological armaments - have been uncovered and eliminated.

The Washington Post said it received the information about the gas from members of the Iraqi National Congress, the main Iraqi opposition group in exile. It said that the missile remnants had been dug up by Unscom inspectors last March from a pit at Taji in Iraq.

Responding to the news, President Bill Clinton said: "If this report is true, it will show that our insistence over these last many years on the UN inspection system is the right thing to do for the safety of America and the safety of the rest of the world".

Iraq has already conceded that its scientists manufactured some 1.7 tonnes of the agent, just a few drops of which can be fatal to humans. But in a recent letter to the Security Council, its Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, insisted that they had failed to stabilise the material sufficiently to put it into warheads.

Meanwhile, UN officials said that Iraq, in discussions with Unscom, had already rejected the laboratory findings. "Both sides agreed to continue further discussions on the issue. While informed of the commission's concerns, Iraq refused to undertake additional steps to clarify the extent of its attempts to produce the chemical warfare agent VX".